Jean-Antoine Watteau (Valenciennes 1684-1721 Nogent-sur-Marne)
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price plus bu… Read more THE PROPERTY OF THE LATE BARONESS BATSHEVA DE ROTHSCHILD (Lots 14, 23-24, 39, 40-41, 52 and 61-65)
Jean-Antoine Watteau (Valenciennes 1684-1721 Nogent-sur-Marne)

Le Conteur: Artists from the Commedia dell'Arte in a landscape

Jean-Antoine Watteau (Valenciennes 1684-1721 Nogent-sur-Marne)
Le Conteur: Artists from the Commedia dell'Arte in a landscape
oil on panel
13½ x 10¾ in. (34.3 x 27.3 cm.)
Anon. Sale [Saurin], Paris, 14 February 1798, lot 49.
Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun; sale, Balbastre, Paris, 2 September 1806, lot 129, 'La Joueuse de Guitare surprise dans un jardin, composition de six figures; Tableau digne du Titien pour la couleur. Il se trouve gravé dans l'oeuvre de ce maître par C.N. Cochin.' (80 francs to Pierre-Jospeh Renoult).
(Possibly) Anon. Sale, Paris, 16 December 1839, lot 108 (without dimensions or support).
(Possibly) 'M.R...'; sale, Paris, 5 March 1866, lot 46 (without dimensions or support).
Baron Alphonse de Rothschild (1827-1905), Paris.
Baron Edouard de Rothschild (1868-1949), Paris.
Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild (1914-99), Tel Aviv.
Rothschild inventory no. ER 57 (the inventory no. R63, and possibly the label '1485/(R) 15', on the reverse relates to the Nazi requisitions of 1940-1).
E. de Goncourt, Catalogue raisonné de l'Oeuvre peint, dessiné et gravé d'Antoine Watteau, Paris, 1875, no. 120.
E. Dacier, J. Herold and A. Vauflart, Jean de Jullienne et les graveurs de Watteau, Paris, 1921-9, III, no. 4.
L. Réau, 'Watteau', in L. Dimier, Les Peintres français du XVIIIe siècle, I, Paris, 1928, no. 65.
F. Ingersoll-Smouse, Pater, Paris, 1928, under no. 597.
K.T. Parker, The Drawings of Antoine Watteau, London, 1932, pp. 11 and 44, under no. 40.
M. Florisoone, 'Exposition de Chefs-d'oeuvre retrouvés en Allemagne. Peintures et Dessins.', Bulletin des Musées de France, 1946, no. 15.
H. Adhémar, Watteau, sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris, 1950, no. 168.
K.T. Parker and J. Mathey, Antoine Watteau. Catalogue complet de son oeuvre dessiné, II, p. 366, under no. 860.
J. Mathey, Antoine Watteau. Peintures réapparues, inconnues, ou negligées par les historiens; identification par les dessins; chronologie, Paris, 1959, p. 68.
E. Camesasca and J. Sutherland, The Complete Paintings of Watteau, London, 1968, no. 132.
J. Ferré, Watteau, Madrid, 1972, III, pp. 968-9, no. B31.
M.P. Eidelberg, Watteau's Drawings, Their Use and Significance, New York and London, 1977, pp. 36-37, fig. 23.
M. Roland Michel, Tout Watteau, Paris, 1982, no. 177.
E. Camesasca and P. Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Watteau, Paris, 1983, no. 132.
M. Morgan Grasselli, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Watteau 1684-1721, Washington, National Gallery of Art; Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais; Berlin, Schloss Charlottenberg, 1984-5, p. 145, under no. 75a, fig. 2.
M. Morgan Grasselli, The Drawings of Antoine Watteau: Stylistic Development and Problems of Chronology, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1987, pp. 352-4, note 44, under nos. 247-9.
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, Les Chefs-d'oeuvres des Collections françaises retrouvés en Allemagne par la Commission de Récupération artistique et les Services alliés, 1946, no. 2, description by M. Florisoone.
Special notice
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price plus buyer's premium.

Lot Essay

Although this painting was exhibited only once in the past century, and has been known principally from an old photograph, its attribution to Watteau has never been seriously doubted. Dating from the artist's final years, Le Conteur ('The Storyteller') ingeniously interweaves Watteau's two great themes - the Italian Comedy and the fête galante - into an autumnal masterpiece of compositional complexity, ribald humour, and unexpected poignancy.

The publication of an engraving of the painting by Charles-Nicolas Cochin was announced in the Mercure de France in December 1727; an inscription on the print identifies the painting's size (13 pouces high by 10½ pouces wide) but not its owner. In recording the engraving, Mariette described its subject as '...a kneeling man who puts his hand on the breast of a woman who holds a guitar, accompanied by a Pierrot, Mezzetin and other actors from the Italian Comedy...'. As is usually the case in the paintings of Watteau, the subject is one of his own invention: it does not illustrate a scene from an actual play or theatrical performance, despite the presence of players from the Commedia dell'Arte. Indeed, beyond Pierrot - who stands in the centre of the picture wearing his familiar black skullcap, white ruff and ivory satin costume - it is difficult to say with certainty who the other characters are meant to represent, although the Goncourt brothers (loc. cit.), and more recently Martin Eidelberg (loc. cit.), identified the kneeling man as Mezzetin; his costume is nearly identical to that worn by the principal male figure in Watteau's Le Donneur de sérénades (Chantilly, Musée Condé), who seems to represent Mezzetin.

The scene is set in an overgrown garden, and Watteau positioned his players between a fountain on the right and a leering herm on the left. A 'conteur' - the kneeling gallant who spins stories to romance a pretty guitarist - feels confident enough in the progress of the seduction to take a considerable liberty; the young woman's reaction is ambiguous, but she does not appear to rebuff him. Scheming Pierrot leans close to the couple, observing both the assault and the girl's plunging decolleté. A small dog - an emblem of fidelity? - and some open roses are on the ground beside them. In the background another actor cranes his neck to see what is happening, while another turns away to comment on the action to a smiling woman. The 'Conteur wears the ruff and pink silks of Mezzetin, but the red-heeled shoes - 'les talons rouges' - of an aristocrat; his aggressive gesture of sexual conquest and possession seems to surprise no one in the painting, although it startles viewers even today. The apparent contradiction of integrating graceful, elegant figures and rude, even violent, humour is one of the most disquieting features of Watteau's art, and may reflect something of the rough-and-tumble performances given by the Commedia dell'arte at the popular outdoor fairs that the painter frequented. In Watteau's hands, an outing in the park with music-making actors becomes a funny and unsettling examination of romantic union, and the calculated negotiations required to achieve it.

Despite the small scale of the painting, and its highly refined execution, the figures in Le Conteur have a monumentality found in the works from the final years of Watteau's career, the period that followed his submission of The Embarkation to Cythera (1717; Paris, Musée du Louvre) to the Académie Royale. Five drawings associated with the painting are known today, including a trois crayons study in Amsterdam for the extended arm and the guitar of the seated woman (Rosenberg and Prat, no. 501), and a delightful sheet of red-chalk studies of dogs, including our watchful King Charles spaniel (Fontainebleau, private collection; ibid., no. 553). A study in red and black chalks used for the figure of the actor who turns to look at the woman behind him (ibid., no. 632) is delicately executed in a manner that is found only in Watteau's late drawings (see A. Wintermute, Watteau and His World: French Drawing from 1700 to 1750, London and New York, 1999, nos. 39, 41 and 43), and confirms a date for Le Conteur of 1718-19. The most famous drawing connected to the painting is a compositional sketch in the Cleveland Museum of Art, in which the kneeling gallant is carefully rendered in red and black chalks, while the woman with the guitar and Pierrot are hastily scratched in; the sheet includes a separate head study of Pierrot wearing a floppy hat. It is an unusual drawing for Watteau, who rarely made compositional studies, and its attribution has recently been challenged by Rosenberg and Prat (op. cit, no. R118). Despite the carefully argued case for rejecting the sheet, several authorities have reaffirmed their belief that it is by Watteau (Grasselli, Roland Michel, Wintermute). A final drawing in a private collection, and known only from old photographs, includes two alternative ideas for the guitarist. It seems close in style to the Cleveland sheet and likewise has been dismissed by Rosenberg and Prat (ibid., no. R400).

The re-emergence of Le Conteur has permitted technical analyses to be performed on the painting for the first time. Infra-red reflectography shows the understructure of the paint surface, and has revealed Watteau's changes of mind as the composition evolved, the most important of which was his decision to eliminate a fully finished figure of a woman who was originally seated on the ground beneath the group of background figures: her upraised hand, shoulder, and face are easily recognized in the radiographs, and she was evidently turning her head to observe the central couple. No chalk study has yet been identified for the figure, but Watteau would undoubtedly have made one. The artist replaced this figure with dark foliage in the final painting (thus it appears in Cochin's engraving as well), although it is not evident why he chose to eliminate her. He habitually worked out the compositions of his paintings on the canvas or panel itself, often making extensive alterations in the process.

Although Mme. Adhémar (op. cit.) believed that there had existed another, earlier version of Le Conteur which was last seen at auction in 1866, there is no compelling reason to think it was not the present picture; certainly, technical examinations have now demonstrated conclusively that the Rothschild panel is Watteau's first version of the subject (Camesasca mentions a reference in the archives of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to a supposedly authentic version of the composition in a private collection in the United States; nevertheless, no trace of such a picture can be found). The composition was copied frequently, however, and Adhémar (ibid.) and Ferré (op. cit.) record several sales in which various copies or versions appeared; a poor copy that is often cited in the literature is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chartres. One copy, published in Oude Kunst (November, 1919), and now in the Musée Van Gelder, Antwerp, was attributed to Philippe Mercier, while a charming replica on canvas by Jean-Baptiste Pater (Ingersoll-Smouse, op. cit., no. 597) was sold recently at Sotheby's, New York, 14 January 1988, lot 195; there is every reason to think that Pater would have based his version on the direct study of Watteau's original. Jacques de Lajoue is not known to have reproduced the picture in its entirety, but he regularly adapted motifs from it into his own compositions: one of most successful of these is The Swing (sold, Christie's New York, 2 November 2000, lot 236) which includes Mezzetin and the man behind him from Watteau's picture, but in reverse and undoubtedly copied from Cochin's print (see Wintermute, op. cit., p. 40, fig. 37).

This lot will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Watteau's paintings now being prepared by Alan Wintermute.


View All
View All